I recently read a thread on Twitter regarding two Black children and their discomfort with their teacher’s usage of the N-word during a lesson. Long story short, a White teacher, in a room of mostly White students, in an attempt to teach about the N-word (the lesson objective was neither directly stated or implied in the thread) only normalized the discomfort those Black students felt via responses of their White classmates who said their various points of discomfort in life was equivalent to the discomfort the Black students felt about from their teacher saying the N-word in that moment.
The focus of this blog, the Urban Education Mixtape is urban education; hence the blog name. City schools are populated primarily by Black and Brown students. A good portion of their teachers are White. The above story is relevant to urban education because there are some ill-informed opinions that some non-Black folks have about the N-word, Black people’s use of it, and the sanctioned use of it for others depending on the context of the situation. There are scholars who have eloquently provided their explanations on the use and non-use of the word, so I won’t write a thesis on this subject. But I will say this: the N-word was and is still used by some White people to strip Black people of their humanity and prevent their access to opportunities for their economic and social progress. Black people who use the N-word with one another and in various art forms do not and cannot execute the word as Whites have and still do – the word and meaning is not of our creation. We’ve manipulated the word to mean something different. If there is a crime we’ve committed by using the N-word in the earshot of White people, and others, is that some White people believe that what’s good for us to do is good for them to do… that’s White privilege talking. Whether or not Black people use the word (and there is internal discussion among Black people on use of the word) under no circumstances should any non-Black person use the word or say the word.
With that all said, if you happen to be a teacher who is race conscious and aware of White supremacy in our society and you desire to teach about the use or creation of the N-word, there are some things that you must consider before delivering such a lesson:
- Know your audience. Your audience has a lot to do with how you will go about constructing and executing your lesson. Know the demographics of your room i.e. age range, maturity level, and racial breakdown of your students. This absolutely matters because you wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) teach this lesson the same with a majority of White students that you would with a majority of Black students. Sensitivity should be high in either room but sensitivities change depending on your audience.
- Check your own privilege and your Whiteness. Before you pat yourself on the back, explore and examine your privilege and Whiteness and how that shapes the dynamic of your classroom and your student’s interactions with you on a daily basis, and your own biases and racial insensitivity. Playing the “I am not a racist” card will not work here.
- Consult with a Black educator. Before you teach this lesson, you should find a Black educator that you trust and run the lesson by him or her first. It would be wise to speak with a person with presumably firsthand experience with using and/or being called the N-word. They will be able to offer you assistance with implementing the lesson.
- Consider writing a letter home to parents detailing your lesson. You may receive immediate pushback, but it can never be said that you didn’t consult with parents before conducting the lesson. If you receive any responses asking you to reconsider teaching the lesson, you probably should sit down with your immediate supervisor and discuss whether or not you should discard the lesson.
- You should probably do this anyway. The thoughts of your principal will save you the trouble of pissing people off and having to abandon your lesson in the process.
- Bring someone else in to teach it. If you are not the best person to teach the lesson, find someone (preferably a Black person) with a level of sophistication to teach the lesson with the attention to detail and sensitivity it deserves. You can of course chime in and give your knowledge also. But sometimes, it is just good to step aside and let someone better equipped to teach the lesson do so.
- Invite other adults to co-teach. Maybe co-teaching would work better – for approvals and parental consent. If you and a Black teacher or a member of the community who is Black decided to teach the lesson, that may serve best. You can defer to that Black teacher as the conversation turned a bit uncomfortable for whatever reason. Not to mention, collaboration with teachers may serve you for your year’s evaluation.
- Turn the lesson into a panel discussion. Invite teachers, scholars and community leaders to discuss the used of the word. Such a discussion may be a bigger event than a regular class period. Be prepared for things to get bigger than you intended with a panel.
- Observe a lesson taught by someone else on the N-word. Rather than teach it blindly, ask to observe a colleague who has taught this lesson or a difficult lesson like this one to get a feel for how you may need to approach the classroom the day of the lesson.
- Don’t teach the lesson at all. Maybe, you should leave this lesson alone. Maybe you’re not ready to teach it or you aren’t a strong enough teacher to overcome the various pitfalls that will abound in this lesson. There is no shame in regrouping and re-configuring your strategy for such a lesson as this. Your intentions may be good… the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
America’s “relationship” with the N-word is complex. As educated and “woke” as you may believe yourself to be, teaching this lesson may not be a good idea. I would advise that you consider the action steps above and apply them. What you absolutely should not do is not tell anyone about what you plan on doing before you do it and then get in a room full of students of color and teach on the N-word. I don’t care if you hear them say it to each other in passing; teaching them about this may turn out to be more than you bargained for.
Let’s continue to press towards the mark!
One thought on “On Teaching The N-Word”
Great post! Came across your blog while looking for resources on racial dynamics in the classroom and the n-word. Very informative!
I am a white, male, high school english teacher in a school with a very diverse student population but a pretty homogenous, mostly white teacher population. All of the ELA teachers are white and although there are some people of color in teaching positions, including an assistant principal, there is a clear power dynamic present as all paraprofessionals, who share the class, are black or hispanic.
My question is, given our circumstances, what are your thoughts on white teachers saying variations of the n word when reading it in literature? Students read To Kill a Mocking Bird, Huckleberry Finn, Song of Solomon, and Invisible Man in there tenure at our school. Half of these texts are written by black authors, the other half, white.
Obviously, the use of the word serves as an important rhetorical device in all of these texts, and all the texts are critical of the word. I feel there is this enacting of white privilege and power in simply announcing, “This word is important to the text so I will read it”, as if you are giving yourself the power to say the word freely. For that reason, although I teach how the word has rhetorical significance, I do not say the word. Some of my colleagues disagree and insist the word must be said.
Should teachers say the word? And, in a diverse class setting, should students say the n word?
Any thoughts or resources on the matter would be greatly appreciated.